Yes, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a better team this year, but there's a whole lot more behind that than just the offseason acquisition of point guard Darren Collison. Actually, there's about seven feet and two inches more behind it, and those 86 inches are named Roy Hibbert.
A third-year center out of Georgetown, Hibbert could very well be among the players up for Most Improved Player this season, especially as he prepares to take on full-time starting center duties for the first time in his career. Considering how well he played in only 25mpg in 2009-2010, one can only assume that with 35+mpg, he'll be even better.
"He showed tremendous dedication to our franchise and to his own game, and as a result his playing time is going to increase from 25 minutes to 35," said Pacers head coach Jim O'Brien. "We'll run a lot of our offense through him because he's such a good passer, face up shooter, and effective against many opponents in the low post."
With the absence of big man Troy Murphy, who rebounded well but spread the floor on offense with his shooting range, O'Brien is looking to run a more traditional half-court set where Hibbert is the focal point. Collison and Danny Granger and everyone else on the roster all will depend on what Hibbert does in the post for a successful offense.
To fine tune his moves, Hibbert worked with Bill Walton, one of the league's all-time most unstoppable post scorers.
"We worked on some stuff," Hibbert said about his time with Walton. "How to be a big man, have a good presence on and off the court. He showed me some good things. He's a winner and a champion, so I was trying to be a sponge and absorb up all I can."
It won't just be his offense that makes Hibbert so valuable this season, however. He was originally drafted for his defense, and that's where Indiana is looking for the biggest improvement this season.
"Defense is always key for us," Hibbert admitted. "Offense will take care of itself, but defensively we have lapses. We'll be good for three or four plays in a row then we have five, six or seven possessions when we break down and the more experienced teams take advantage of us.
Hibbert, in his very limited minutes last season, still averaged 1.6 blocks and 5.7 rebounds per night. With increased minutes, he could easily be a double-double guy swatting away over two blocks a game. That's what Indiana needs him to be, and that's why they're making such a big deal about his role for this franchise moving forward.
"I just want to improve every year," he said. "I want to get my rebounding numbers up, be a leader on the court more than anything."
If those goals are attained, there's a chance that Indy could actually sneak back into the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. That, at least, is what Hibbert and the rest of his teammates are setting as a realistic goal for themselves this season.
"We're shooting for those last couple spots, and I think we can do it," Hibbert said. "We have to win. Our backs are against the wall, and we have to scrap."
All that scrapping will definitely make the Pacers a better team in 2011, but it'll be the improvement of Hibbert—as well as the rejuvenation of Granger and the addition of Collison—that will get Indy into the playoffs next spring.
Funny how the largest of reasons for resurgence in Indianapolis is the one most easily overlooked. You'd think 86 inches would be a little more obvious.